A tribute to adland’s greatest philosopher

Caroline was Campaign Editor from 1999-2004

Former editor of Campaign, Caroline Marshall pays tribute to the late, great Jeremy Bullmore.

John Jeremy David Bullmore, husband of Pamela, father of Edward, Adam and Amelia, grandfather of eight, writer, copywriter and senior adviser to boards and businesses. This is about as concise a description of a remarkable man as I could write. A man who provided hundreds of us who knew him directly (and thousands more who read his work or heard him speak) with discreet counsel and, through that, the confidence to deal with a range of issues thrown up by our personal and professional lives.

Jeremy was an expert in many things. Politics, literature, light verse, theatre, cinema, fish and chips, public speaking, journalism, not to mention advertising. But his overriding preoccupation throughout his career was to understand how communications could build brands. What intrigued him most was the intellectual question at the heart of it all: how to build and keep brands that are fresh and provocative without losing what makes them successful in the first place.

This is quite a niche art, but it was made special for Jeremy by a partnership with Stephen King that was critical to his professional life. The pair were at the same school and university and worked together at JWT for 30 years and afterwards at WPP, their friendship, mutual admiration and wicked sense of humour a constant thread.

Jeremy was head of the creative department at J Walter Thompson in the 1960s when Stephen identified the need for a new specialised agency role: planning as a discrete discipline. To understand how the pair bridged the great divide between creatives and planners look up “What is a Brand?”, a legendary illustrated discussion between Stephen and Jeremy that took place at J Walter Thompson in 1974.

So Jeremy was a creative person, a copywriter, who placed huge value on insights derived through canny research and analysis.

He also personally wrote or closely directed some of the most famous and successful advertising of its day. He earned the awed respect of clients such as Guinness, Unilever, Gillette, Campari, Parker Pen, Black Magic, Kellogg and dozens of others.

In terms of his external roles, Jeremy was chairman of the Advertising Association, a non-executive director at Guardian Media Group, the recipient of a CBE, a trustee of the History of Advertising Trust, president of Nabs, the Market Research Society and The Thirty Club and speechwriter and adviser to one-time Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown. To say that Jeremy had an extensive CV would be like saying that he had a slightly untidy filing system.

And yet I know that the reason why we all admired, liked or grew to love Jeremy was because that while he had an air of quiet and sometimes daunting intellectual brilliance, and took his work very seriously, he never took himself at all seriously.

He wasn’t always good at “managing”, not for want of insight (look at his brilliant columns on the workplace in Campaign, Management Today and The Guardian), but because he was too kind. He told a hilarious story about him firing a hopeless copywriter, who turned up the following Monday morning to thank Jeremy for the pep talk. Days after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, as soon as flights resumed, he flew to New York expressly to support the graduate trainees there whom he mentored as part of his involvement in the WPP Fellowship scheme.

He disliked confrontation, except when confronted with bullying, which he absolutely detested. A colleague once saw him bring an unpleasant and complaining client to a dead halt in a meeting by mildly saying: “I think you’ve reached that point we all sometimes encounter at home when your spouse says ‘…and another thing…’”.

He had a deep store of instant wit to defuse such confrontational situations at work. This was typical:

Colleague: “Jeremy, stop being so competitive.”

Jeremy: “I am not competitive. I challenge you to prove that I’m competitive.”

As well as inventing brands (like Mr Kipling, now sold in 10 countries across the world), he would sometimes invent people.

Jeremy frequently quoted from a wise adman called Dave Flower in his writing. As some of you may know, Dave Flower doesn’t exist – and never has. Jeremy could never quite remember why he invented him but he loved the fact that quite a lot of eminent adpersons claimed to have known Dave – although, as one modestly said, “Not well.” Jeremy attributed many inane sayings to him and Campaign carried a fulsome tribute by Jeremy on Dave’s sad demise. On 1 April.

There was Beverly, the incompetent (and gender neutral, it was at one time a common masculine name) client, who appeared in Jeremy’s handiwork, including “Ten tried and trusted ways of getting the least from your advertising agency” and its counterpart “Ten tried and trusted ways of pissing off your client”.

There was also Jeremy the writer for television. His friend John Bowen and he were Justin Blake, who invented and wrote a TV series called Garry Halliday, which ran for 30 or more episodes on the BBC in what became the Doctor Who slot. As Jeremy recalled: “We were invited to write for Doctor Who but declined; it sounded far too worthy.”

And then he was a novelist. Between 1998 and 2000, working at weekends, Jeremy wrote a satirical novel titled The Quality Quotient. Finally self-published in 2017, it is a clever and complex love story (with a very funny sex scene) that charts the effect on human and corporate behaviour of a new and entirely bogus metric: one that ranks companies not on the measurable factors of share price, profitability and return on capital but on care, compassion and social responsibility. Another serious and prescient idea wrapped up in the character of the novel’s antihero narrator, market research company owner Anthony Bevill.

In his journalism, Jeremy was incorrigibly mischievous. But he also asked the most profound questions of the business. His series of three books, entitled Behind the Scenes in Advertising, contain some of the questions that intrigued him. What is advertising? If you make ‘em laugh, do you make ‘em buy? Whatever happened to the Hidden Persuaders? Should researchers feel responsible not just for the reliability of their data but also for its interpretation and implementation?

And in his writing for WPP’s award-winning Annual Reports he also asked questions that were ahead of their time. Time-and-Motion Man and The Mad Inventor was written in 1998 and hugely prescient. It appeared as the industry trembled on the threshold of the dotcom bubble and explored a bold and futuristic thought: “Where once there was an industrial age, and then an information age, we’re now well into the age of the imagination: an age where the price and availability of knowledge and technology may favour the small over the large; the innocent over the experienced; the bold over the cautious; the inventive (and frequently wrong) over percentage-playing consolidators. An age where something called intellectual
capital can make a nonsense of conventional balance sheets.”

In 2001 Jeremy wrote in a celebrated speech – and later an essay to which he gave the title Posh Spice & Persil – that: “If you want to be as famous as BMW, it’s no use being known only by the tiny percentage of the population who can afford to buy your car today.” He articulated, and the case studies provide evidence, that both fame and knowledge contribute to success. Brand fame is what you need to create and preserve.

All this goes to show what we all know – Jeremy was important in his work. For Jeremy’s family, his public importance at this time is a recognition of how much his work meant to him and to others. They know he loved his job, they know he loved it enough to fully retire only at the age of 92. And this means that the most personal and private moment of losing a husband and father is being experienced far beyond the family circle. So many of us in advertising at all levels – for Jeremy was sublimely unimpressed by status – have special anecdotes, signed copies of his books, photos, rewarding encounters, fantastic memories.

In the Queen’s Honours List of 1985, Jeremy was appointed CBE. It was a proper recognition of what he’d achieved as chairman of the Advertising Association, the industry he represented was better understood and better regulated than before.

Yet when he got his CBE, or any other recognition, he was proud but also genuinely embarrassed. Just as he was in November 2022 when WPP revealed the Best of Bullmore website, which I spent much of last year researching and organising, so that Wunderman Thompson could design it as a lasting and searchable archive.

Jeremy didn’t enjoy taking the credit, hated the limelight, frequently told me it felt like indulging in a form of narcissism – but all of us who were lucky enough to be involved knew where credit lay.

Throughout his career, Jeremy challenged conventional wisdom with unconventional and informed thinking on subjects of real importance. In doing so he gave the business of advertising an intellectual respectability that was born of hard practical experience blended
with insight and integrity.

Campaign called him “Adland’s greatest philosopher”, an important label for his achievement as a public person. To that I would add importantly funny, kind, loving and generous. All of us who have known Jeremy have so much to thank him for and so much to celebrate.

Caroline Marshall was the editor of Campaign from 1999 to 2004. This piece originally appeared on Campaign.

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Last updated 07 December 2023